NASA begins testing of InSight Mars lander for launch in 2016

Testing of the solar arrays on the InSight lander at Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lockheed Martin
Testing of the solar arrays on the InSight lander at Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lockheed Martin

While Curiosity and Opportunity are still busy roving Mars, NASA has begun testing its next lander, InSight, scheduled to launch in March 2016. It will be the first mission devoted to studying the interior of the Red Planet, providing a unique and necessary addition to the Mars exploration program overall.

InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) will be a stationary lander instead of a rover, like the previous Mars Phoenix Lander, but it will help scientists understand how Mars, and other rocky planets like Earth, evolved geologically over time. The lander has now been assembled and is undergoing rigorous testing, which is required to show that the lander can survive the six-month journey to Mars as well as the harsh surface conditions on the planet itself.

“Today, our robotic scientific explorers are paving the way, making great progress on the journey to Mars,” said Jim Green, director of NASA’s Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport at the agency’s headquarters in Washington. “Together, humans and robotics will pioneer Mars and the Solar System.”

Testing of the solar arrays on the InSight lander at Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lockheed Martin
Testing of the solar arrays on the InSight lander at Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lockheed Martin

As part of the environmental testing phase at the Lockheed Martin Space Systems facility near Denver, InSight will be exposed to extreme temperatures, vacuum conditions and other tests over the next seven months. A thermal vacuum test in the spacecraft’s “cruise” configuration, which will be used during its seven-month journey to Mars, is the first test. Other tests include vibrations to simulate the launch of the spacecraft, separation and deployment shock and looking for any electronic interference between various parts of the spacecraft. The final test is a second thermal vacuum test in which the spacecraft is exposed to the temperatures and atmospheric pressures it will experience on the Martian surface.

According to Stu Spath, InSight program manager at Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver, “The assembly of InSight went very well and now it’s time to see how it performs. The environmental testing regimen is designed to wring out any issues with the spacecraft so we can resolve them while it’s here on Earth. This phase takes nearly as long as assembly, but we want to make sure we deliver a vehicle to NASA that will perform as expected in extreme environments.”

“It’s great to see the spacecraft put together in its launch configuration,” said InSight Project Manager Tom Hoffman at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, California. “Many teams from across the globe have worked long hours to get their elements of the system delivered for these tests. There still remains much work to do before we are ready for launch, but it is fantastic to get to this critical milestone.”

InSight will help scientists study the interior of Mars in detail for the first time. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
InSight will help scientists study the interior of Mars in detail for the first time. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

While primarily a NASA mission, the science team includes U.S. and international co-investigators from universities, industry and government agencies.

From the Lockheed Martin press release:

“Scheduled to launch in March 2016 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, InSight is a robotic exploration mission that will record measurements of the interior of the Red Planet, giving scientists unprecedented detail into the evolution of Mars and other terrestrial planets. The InSight mission will address one of the most fundamental issues of planetary and Solar System science; understanding the processes that shaped the rocky planets of the inner Solar System (including Earth) more than four billion years ago.”

InSight’s mission is a unique one, to learn more about what is inside Mars instead of just what is on the surface; it will look at the planet’s “vital signs”: “pulse” (seismology), “temperature” (heat flow probe) and “reflexes” (precision tracking). InSight will study the size, thickness, density and overall structure of Mars’ core, mantle and crust, as well as the rate at which heat escapes from the planet’s interior. This will help answer long-standing questions and provide more clues as to how Mars has changed over time, from a once wetter world to the cold, mostly dry desert we see today.

The InSight mission is led by JPL’s Bruce Banerdt. The Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales, France’s space agency, and the German Aerospace Center are each contributing a science instrument to the two-year scientific mission. InSight’s international science team includes researchers from Austria, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Poland, Spain, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States.

More information about the InSight mission is available here.

This article was first published on AmericaSpace.

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